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Qatar: The Small Monarchy that Mastered the Art of Soft Power

According to Harvard professor Joseph Nye, there are two forms of power. First, there is the power of the gun and the purse, in other words military and economic power. Nye called this ‘hard power’. Second, there is the more subtle power of attraction, which he dubbed soft power (Nye, 2009, p.160). When thinking of soft power, one might immediately think of the well-known examples; India’s Bollywood, China’s network of Confucius Institutes or the French language. However, soft power is not only the remit of great- or middle powers, as small states can deploy soft power very effectively. They often have to rely on soft power to defend themselves, lacking the military or economic power to fend off larger neighbours. For small states, soft power is not a luxury, but a matter of survival (Chong, 2007, p.7-10). One of the best examples of a small state that effectively utilizes soft power to survive in a hostile environment is Qatar (Brannagan & Giulianotti, 2018, p.1139).

Why Qatar needs soft power

Qatar is a small state with just 2.6 million inhabitants, located on the east side of the Arabian peninsula, adjacent to Saudi Arabia. The monarchy has a difficult relation with its much larger neighbour, among other things stemming from the fact that Saudi Arabia has historically claimed Qatar’s territory and has repeatedly intervened in Qatar’s domestic politics. Another complicating factor is that both countries want to expand their influence in the Gulf Region, which led to tensions, especially after the Arab Spring (Bilgin, 2018, p.114-115). The tensions culminated in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and the Maldives cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar and installing a blockade against the country in June 2017 (Rende, 2017, p.60). This illustrates the hostile environment in which Qatar needs to operate well. Needless to say, but Qatar does not have the hard power to challenge Saudi Arabia. In 2021, Qatar spent $11.8 billion on its military, compared to Saudi Arabia’s military budget of $57.5 in 2020 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 25 April 2022; The World Bank, n.d.). Saudi Arabia’s GDP is 4.6x larger than Qatar’s (The World Bank, n.d. A). Hence, Qatar has to use soft power as a source of power to protect itself. The next section discusses five tools of soft power Qatar has at its disposal.

Five tools of Qatar’s soft power

1. Sports

This is perhaps the most well-known manifestation of Qatar’s soft power, but Qatar is very active in hosting sport events to bolster its image. First and foremost, Qatar is the host of the 2022 football World Cup (Castro Torres, 2021, p.7). Yet, there are more examples. In November 2021, Qatar hosted its first F1 Grand Prix race, and the country has a 10-year contract to host F1 races (F1 destinations, 18 May 2022). Furthermore, in 2011 Qatar Sports Investment bought France’s best performing football team, Paris Saint-Germain (Brannagan & Giulianotti, 2018A, p.714). Qatar has also been trying to get the Summer Olympics to Doha, its capital. However, so far all of its bids, for the Games of 2016, 2020 and 2032, have failed (Reuters, 27 July 2020). Thus, despite not being known for its impressive athletes, Qatar is nonetheless becoming a great sporting power.

2. Al Jazeera

Owned by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera is important in Qatar’s public diplomacy. Qatar uses Al Jazeera for instance when it is mediating an international conflicts (Antwi-Boateng, 2013, p.7). Being the first 24-hours news channel in the Middle East and catering to 300 million households in 100+ countries, the influence of Al Jazeera should not be underestimated (Brannagan & Giulianotti, 2018, p.1146). Some analysts use the term ‘Al Jazeera effect’, to refer to the company’s influence on international affairs such as the Arab Spring (Miles, 9 February 2011). Brookings termed Al Jazeera “the most-feared news network”, describing how Qatar uses Al Jazeera to deflect critique on Qatar’s emir and counter information from media from rival countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt (Telhami, 15 June 2013). In short, Al Jazeera is a soft power tool as important as any.

3. Conflict mediation

Qatar has often offered to be a mediator in conflict situations, examples being the conflicts in Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen (Kamrava, 2011, p.539). In the currently ongoing Ukraine War, the Qatari Emir also offered to contribute to mediation efforts (Khojji, 23 May 2022). Qatar’s role as a mediator can also be seen as part of its soft power, a way for Qatar to enhance its reputation in order to survive in a hostile international environment (Kamrava, 2011, p.555-556).

4. Funding mosques abroad

Qatar is a major funder for mosques abroad. According to the book Qatar Papers, by Christian Chesnot & Georges Malbrunot (2020), Qatar Charity has funded 140 Islamic religious institutions in Europe worth €71 million, to promote the Muslim Brotherhood. The official website of Qatar Charity reveals the NGO is active in roughly 60 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, having completed 12.882 projects (Qatar Charity, n.d.). Qatar Charity is receives its money from Qatar’s royal family (SWI, 5 April 2019).

5. Donations to foreign universities

Qatar hosts branch campuses of several prestigious foreign universities such as Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University and HEC Paris (Qatar Foundation, n.d.). This has come with donations to those universities, donations that are not always transparent (Green, 30 August 2019; Paton, 4 April 2019). Hosting those branch campuses and giving those donations is another way for Qatar to improve its international visibility and reputation (Brannagan & Giulianotti, 2018, p.1147).


To conclude, it seems fair to argue that in terms of influence and prestige, Qatar punches far above its weight in the international arena, in large part due to its varied and extensive soft power tools. The case of Qatar contains two lessons for other countries that are worth highlighting. First, it shows that small states can work on improving their national security and international influence in non-traditional ways. Sure, a large army and a well-trained diplomatic corps have their use, but hosting an influential media company like Al Jazeera may be much more important than having an aircraft carrier. Second, the case of Qatar demonstrates that to guard their security, countries should be aware of covert forms of foreign influence. Although Qatar’s mediation efforts or organization of the 2022 World Cup are out in the open, Qatar’s funding of mosques abroad or donations to universities are much less transparent. Whether such foreign funding is desirable is up to each country to decide for themselves, but governments should at least be aware that such financial transactions exist, so they can take the actions they deem appropriate (if any). As a final note, the term ‘soft’ power implies that yielding such power is somehow soft or benign, but this is a misconception. Thousands of migrant workers, working in conditions some have called slavery, lost their lives while constructing the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (Worden, 3 May 2022). Soft power is after all still power, the exercise of which can have nasty consequences.



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